b. 24/09/1920 Superior, Wisconsin. d. 06/08/1945 North Hollywood, California.
DATE OF MOH ACTION: 10/10/1944 to 15/11/1944 Borneo.
Bong was born September 24, 1920, in Superior, Wisconsin, the first of nine children born to Carl Bong, an immigrant from Sweden, and Dora Bryce, who was an American of Scotch-English descent. Known by the common nickname “Dick”, he grew up on a farm in Poplar, Wisconsin, where he became interested in aircraft at an early age while watching planes fly over the farm carrying mail for President Calvin Coolidge’s summer White House in Superior, and was an avid model builder.
Bong entered Poplar High School in 1934, where he played the clarinet in the marching band and participated in baseball, basketball, and hockey. Because Poplar was a three-year school at the time, Bong transferred to Central High School in Superior for his senior year, graduating in 1938.
He began studying at Superior State Teachers College (the current-day University of Wisconsin–Superior) in 1938. While there, Bong enrolled in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and also took private flying lessons. On May 29, 1941, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet Program. One of his flight instructors was Captain Barry Goldwater (later a U.S. Senator from Arizona).
He was commissioned a second lieutenant and awarded his pilot wings on January 19, 1942. His first assignment was as an instructor (gunnery) pilot at Luke Field, Arizona, from January to May 1942. His first operational assignment was on May 6 to the 49th Fighter Squadron (FS), 14th Fighter Group at Hamilton Field, California, where he learned to fly the twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning.
On June 12, 1942, Bong flew very low (“buzzed”) over a house in nearby San Anselmo, the home of a pilot who had just been married. He was cited and temporarily grounded for breaking flying rules, along with three other P-38 pilots who had looped around the Golden Gate Bridge on the same day. For looping the Golden Gate Bridge, flying at a low level down Market Street in San Francisco, and blowing the clothes off of an Oakland woman’s clothesline, Bong was reprimanded by General George C. Kenney, commanding officer of the Fourth Air Force, who told him, “If you didn’t want to fly down Market Street, I wouldn’t have you in my Air Force, but you are not to do it any more and I mean what I say.” Kenney later wrote, “We needed kids like this lad.”
In all subsequent accounts, Bong denied flying under the Golden Gate Bridge. Nevertheless, Bong was still grounded when the rest of his group was sent without him to England in July 1942. Bong then transferred to another Hamilton Field unit, 84th Fighter Squadron of the 78th Fighter Group. From there, Bong was sent to the Southwest Pacific Area. On September 10, 1942, Lt. Bong was assigned to the 9th Fighter Squadron (aka “Flying Knights”), 49th Fighter Group, based at Darwin, Australia. While the squadron waited for delivery of the scarce Lockheed P-38s, Bong and other 9th FS pilots flew missions with the 39th FS, 35th Fighter Group, based in Port Moresby, New Guinea, to gain combat experience. On December 27, 1942, Bong claimed his initial aerial victory, shooting down a Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” and a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” over Buna (during the Battle of Buna-Gona). For this action Bong was awarded the Silver Star.
In March 1943, Bong returned to the 49th FG, now at Schwimmer Field near Port Moresby, New Guinea. In April, he was promoted to first lieutenant. On July 26, 1943, Bong shot down four Japanese fighters over Lae, an accomplishment that earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. In August, he was promoted to captain. While on leave to the United States in November and December 1943, Bong met Marge Vattendahl at a Superior State Teachers’ College Homecoming event and began dating her. After returning to the Southwest Pacific in January 1944, he named his P-38 “Marge” and adorned the nose with her photo. By April 1944, Captain Bong had shot down 27 Japanese aircraft, surpassing Eddie Rickenbacker’s American record of 26 credited victories in World War I. In April, he was promoted to major.
On the recommendation of General Kenney, the Far East Air Force commander, Bong received the Medal of Honor from General Douglas MacArthur in a special ceremony on 12 December 1944 at Tacloban Air Base, Leyte, Philippines. Bong’s Medal of Honor citation says that he flew combat missions despite his status as an instructor, which was one of his duties as standardization officer for V Fighter Command. His rank of major would have qualified him for a squadron command, but he always flew as a flight (four-plane) or element (two-plane) leader.
In January 1945, Kenney sent America’s “Ace of Aces” home for good. Bong married Vattendahl on February 10, 1945. He participated in numerous PR activities, such as promoting the sale of war bonds.
Bong then became a test pilot assigned to Lockheed’s plant in Burbank, California, where he flew P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters at the Lockheed Air Terminal. On August 6, 1945, he took off to perform the acceptance flight of P-80A 44-85048. It was his 12th flight in the P-80; he had a total of four hours and fifteen minutes of flight time in the jet.
The plane’s primary fuel pump malfunctioned during takeoff. Bong either forgot to switch to the auxiliary fuel pump, or for some reason was unable to do so. Bong cleared away from the aircraft, but was too low for his parachute to deploy. The plane crashed into a narrow field at Oxnard Street and Satsuma Avenue, North Hollywood. His death was front-page news across the country, sharing space with the first news of the bombing of Hiroshima.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty in the Southwest Pacific area from October 10, to November 15, 1944. Though assigned to duty as gunnery instructor and neither required nor expected to perform combat duty, Maj. Bong voluntarily and at his own urgent request engaged in repeated combat missions, including unusually hazardous sorties over Balikpapan, Borneo, and in the Leyte area of the Philippines. His aggressiveness and daring resulted in his shooting down 8 enemy airplanes during this period.
BURIAL LOCATION: POPLAR CEMETERY, POPLAR, WISCONSIN.
PLOT I, BLOCK 8, LOT 10, GRAVE 2
LOCATION OF MEDAL: RICHARD I. BONG VETERANS HERITAGE CENTER, SUPERIOR, WISCONSIN.